Is God a Metaphor?

sky with clouds and the sun peaking through

In September I stumbled upon the writings of Mark Schaefer. I found an excerpt God is a metaphor. This excerpt is from The Certainty of Uncertainty: The Way of Inescapable Doubt and Its Virtue. This piece intrigued me and I began to think of ways to respond. I argue that Christianity locates God in a singular human being, Jesus. This avoids the metaphorical nature of God. Thus, if Schaefer is correct, without Jesus, humanity cannot understand God.

Schaefer’s argument

He opens with the question, “what does God mean?” Schaefer suggests that a person can only give descriptive statements when discussing God. For example, I might say God is the creator. Yet that only describes what God does, not who he is. Fictional characters act in a similar way. One can only mention Huckleberry in relationship to other characters. God, mathematical principles, and fictional characters all cannot point to actual individuals.

Schaefer differentiates between God and a person in the following scenario.

Imagine two Christians are having the following conversation about war. Christian A says that my God does not believe in war. Christian B says, no my God does support a war. Yet replace the term God with Steve and the sentences make no sense. Steve cannot both be in favor of and against war. Yet Christian A and B can use God interchangeably for contradictory ideas.

Schaefer concludes that God cannot be self-evident. In isolation, a person cannot understand God. Rather God is a metaphor for the ultimate reality of existence. How one understands this reality is up to the person. In other words, God is a metaphor for a yet unidentified process that effects some change in the world. How does this philosophical take on God fit the Christian framework of God?

God in the Old Testament

God first introduces himself to Abram (Genesis 12:1). God never gives a name, but rather introduces himself based on promises he makes. He tells Abram that he will make him a great nation. After Abraham has kids, God continues to speak. God greets Issac as the God of Abraham (Genesis 26:24). Once again, God references himself in relation to someone else. This continues throughout the Bible until Moses.

The Burning Bush: Exodus 3:2-14

In this iconic scene, Moses encounters God. Moses receives a call from God to free the Israelite people from Egyptian slavery. Once again God introduces himself as the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. This fails to satisfy Moses. Moses wants to know God’s name. God then says that his name is “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Yet I am is not a proper name. Rather it merely indicates an entity that exists. According to Catholic study bible, the I am name refers to the cause of all things to be. The lack of a proper name for God changes at the incarnation.

The Incarnation

Unlike God, Jesus is a historical person. We can point to and know of Jesus. Jesus is not a metaphor but is flesh and blood. Jesus is the person that encompasses the metaphorical conception of God. Some have argued that the historical Jesus is not the same as the metaphorical God. Yet there are certain events in the Bible that point to Jesus as God. I’m not interested in proving the Bible reliable. I merely wish to show how Jesus could equal God and fix the metaphorical conception problems. Jesus’ authority over nature, sin, and death strengthens his claim of divinity. ‘

Authority Over Nature

He got into a boat and his disciples followed him. Suddenly a violent storm came upon the sea so that the boat was being swamped by waves; but he was asleep. They came and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” He said to them, “Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?” Then he got up, rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. The men were amazed and said, “What sort of man is this, whom even the winds and the sea obey?” Mathew 8:23-27

Here in this story, Jesus demonstrates his control over the wind and waves. This act amazes the people in the boat. They know that a mere man cannot control nature. Now a common criticism is that this story never happened. Yet when the Bible was written, people close to the original sources were consulted. St. Paul writes, “After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” (1st Corinthians 15:6). Most historians would consider St Paul’s writing as authentic. They were letters written to the early church. Historical letters are considered primary sources. St Paul suggests that witness to Christ were still around. The church would have consulted these witnesses. They would have corroborated the later gospel accounts.

Authority Over Forgiveness

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Jesus immediately knew in his mind what they were thinking to themselves, so he said, “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth”— he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.” He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone. Mark 2:5-12

Here Jesus forgives the sins of a paralytic man. The scribes rightly recognize that this authority over sins belongs to God. Jesus also heals the man in response to their doubt. The healing occurs to demonstrates that Jesus had the authority to forgive sins. This bolsters his claim to be God.

Authority Over Life and Death

Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” And when he had said this, he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth.” John 11:38-44

Here Jesus calls God, father. He also says that the father sent him and hears him. He wants the crowd to believe that God sent Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus proves his relationship with the father by raising Lazarus from the dead. Having authority over life and death is commonly thought to be a characteristic of God.

Conclusion

Mark Schaefer argues that God is nothing more than a metaphor. God represents the ultimate reality of existence. Thus one cannot understand God. One cannot have self-evident knowledge of God. Yet that changes when we accept that Jesus is God. In light of the incarnation, God ceases to be a metaphor and becomes a flesh and blood person. Just like any other person, Jesus doesn’t just stand for anything. Rather if two people claim to be followers of Jesus, they must confess the same beliefs. We know Jesus is God because of the authority he displays in the gospel stories. He has authority over life and death, nature, and sin. The bigger and more important question will you accept his authority?

Putting Christ back in Chrismas

Top picture is a Christmas landscape with snow, trees, Christmas decorations. Bottom picture is a nativity scene with Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in a manger

Introduction

When we think of Christmas Eve, we typically think of family gatherings, gift giving, and a nice meal. If we have young children or are young children, we might prepare for St. Nick to visit. We rarely make time for or appreciate the real reason for the season, which is the birth of Jesus Christ. On Christmas Day, the son of God came down in the form of a baby. He was born in a dirty manger. Have we really stopped in the midst of the busy holiday season to ask why? What is the significance of the incarnation for Christian theology? Also, why does it continue to be important for us today?

Significance for Christianity

I touched on this in my last blog post, 6 Reasons to Believe in Christianity. I believe that the incarnation is one of the top reasons to believe in Christianity.

Redeemed Humanity

In the incarnation, God took on humanity’s nature. This action restored the grace that humanity had at the garden of Eden. When Christ destroyed death for one, he destroyed death for all. St. Paul puts it this way,

“For if, by the transgression of one person, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person Jesus Christ” Romans 5:17

Jesus’ victory over death applies to all humanity as a gift. How one accepts this gift is a point of contention between Protestants and Catholics. This topic of soteriology is too broad for this post.

Reveals God the Father

Not only does the incarnation ensure our salvation, but it also reveals who God is to all. Jesus reveals that God is not some mystical guy in the sky. Rather, God is a real tangible person. St. Athanasius argues that neither creation nor the law is enough to remind us of God. Thus, God being a good king would not let us take other masters, but would come down himself.1 Jesus puts it this way,

Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. John 14:9b

Jesus confirms that through him God the father reveals his true nature.

Made Eye Witness Accounts Possible

Lastly, the incarnation made eyewitness accounts possible. Jesus was a real historical person. The twelve disciples claimed to have seen the resurrection. Yet they also knew Jesus Christ as a human being. All of the disciples died rather than recant that Jesus was the son of God. It is easy to die for believing something someone told you. Muslim martyrs do this all the time. It is harder to die for a claim known to be false. The disciples knew Jesus. Thus, if the disciples had any doubts about his claims, they would’ve had a harder time dying for the cause.

Significance Now

The above are great reasons to believe in Christianity, but what if you are already Christian? Why is it important to recognize the incarnation now? What does it have left to teach us?

First, it teaches that we can have a relationship with the divine. The Bible puts it this way,

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. Hebrews 4:15

Jesus understands where we are coming from since he has also been tested in a similar way. I once presented the above reason to a Muslim. She was quick to object. She said if God created us wouldn’t he know us. I must admit she had stumped me. Yet I’ve come to realize that knowing and experiencing are two different things. I can know that fire causes pain when touched. Yet I cannot sympathize until I experience being burned myself. I want my God to not just know humanity, but to experience humanity.

Second, it shows that God is not afraid of our mess. Sometimes we can think that we are unlovable or unworthy. The incarnation teaches that if God can enter the mess of a stable, he can enter the mess of our hearts.

Third, it teaches the importance of all life. God entrance into humanity took the form of a vulnerable child, who society did not welcome. Thus, Christians should welcome the poor, the lonely, the immigrant, and the unwanted. The incarnation teaches us the importance of accepting and protecting all human life.

Conclusion

Christmas is the celebration of love, and joy that stems from the coming of Jesus Christ, our savior. Jesus didn’t come as a warrior king ready to do battle. Rather, he entered this world as a newborn baby. The incarnation is significant. It serves as the foundation for salvation theology. It reminds us to love and welcome the outsider. Lastly, it teaches us that God embraces our mess. Christmas is a time when you gather around your family for a nice meal and presents. Yet please also don’t forget to acknowledge Christ’s birth.

1. [st Athanasius On The Incarnation, http://www.copticchurch.net/topics/theology/incarnation_st_athanasius.pdf]